A federal judge has rejected the Archdiocese of Washington’s request to force Metro to post its Christmas advertisements, affirming that the transit agency has the right to ban posters featuring a religious-themed scene.
The issue first came up nearly two weeks ago, when the Archdiocese of Washington sought to post advertisements on Metro buses that would tout its “#FindThePerfectGift” campaign, which encourages people to attend Catholic mass or make charitable donations during the holiday season.
The ad featured several robed figures carrying shepherd’s rods, as well as two sheep, which appeared to represent a scene from the biblical story of Christmas.
Metro rejected the proposed printed banners, saying it violated their own guidelines mandating that ads on the system must “contain no explicit references to religion, religious practice, or belief.”
After lodging complaints with Metro that went ignored, the Archdiocese sued the transit agency in U.S. District Court on Nov. 27, requesting that a judge move swiftly to compel Metro to display the ads immediately. Lawyers for the Archdiocese argued that Metro’s censorship amounted to a violation of the church’s First Amendment rights.
The Archdiocese said Metro was enforcing its ban on religious advertising capriciously, because the transit agency had allowed promotional posters for the Salvation Army and for yoga studios, which both have connections to religion.
But in a decision issued on Friday, Judge Amy Berman Jackson took a different stance. She said that Metro's policies banning religious and "issues-oriented" ads — borne out of a desire to prevent inflammatory ads that could incite violence — was reasonable and enforced with fairness.
“Given [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] concerns about the risks posed by issue-oriented ads, including ads promoting or opposing religion, its decision was reasonable,” Jackson wrote in her ruling. “The regulation is reasonably aligned with WMATA’s duty to provide safe, reliable transportation . . . and it does not violate the First Amendment.”
Jackson drew a distinction between the Archdiocese’s ads, with its seemingly biblical imagery, and the ads that were successfully posted by the Salvation Army, an organization with Protestant affiliation. Those ads feature the ubiquitous “red kettles” that are used to collect donations on sidewalks and outside of grocery stores around the world during the Christmas season.
“The Red Kettle may be a well-known symbol of the season, but there is nothing religious about it. The ad does not promote or oppose any religion or religious practice; while the Salvation Army has a religious origin and affiliation, what the ad is promoting is the act of giving and the practical effect on the recipient,” Jackson wrote in her decision. “While charitable giving is a fundamental tenet of many faiths, the advertisement does not advance or reject any religious imperative or spiritual inspiration for the activity it is seeking to encourage.”
Archdiocese spokesman Ed McFadden said church officials are disappointed with the judge’s decision.
“While this preliminary ruling that there should be no room made for us on WMATA buses is disappointing, we will continue in the coming days to pursue and defend our right to share the important message of Christmas in the public square,” McFadden said.
The lawsuit from the Archdiocese was the latest legal action carried out by organizations rankled by Metro's new, significantly more selective advertising guidelines.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency welcomed the court’s decision.